Sat., March 12, 2011 8:05am (EST)

West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin Goes Rogue
By David Welna
Updated: 3 years ago

Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin took a swipe last week at the president's leadership on budget talks, rankling fellow members of his party. The senator is shown sitting by himself last week in the House of Representatives as he awaited an address to a joint session of Congress by the Australian prime minister.
It's not often that a newly elected senator goes rogue and delivers a stinging rebuke of the president of the United States especially when they're both from the same party. Yet that's exactly what West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin did last week.

On Tuesday, the 63-year-old former governor of West Virginia, who now holds the seat of the late legendary Sen. Robert C. Byrd, rose on the Senate floor and held forth on the partisan battle over federal spending that's tied lawmakers in knots and threatened to shut down the government.

"Now, I may be just a freshman senator, but I'll be blunt this whole process does not make a lot of sense to me," he said. "And I'm afraid it doesn't make sense to a lot of West Virginians, or a lot of our fellow Americans."

Manchin spoke shortly before the Senate voted on rival bills to keep the government in business. One, passed by House Republicans, chopped $61 billion from federal programs over the next six months, what Democrats called the meat ax approach to austerity; the Democrats proposed far more modest cuts. Everyone, including Manchin, knew in advance that both measures would be rejected. But Congress, he said, can't break this stalemate.

"This debate, as important as it is, will not be decided by House Republicans or by Senate Democrats negotiating with each other or past each other," Manchin said. "The debate will be decided when the president leads these tough negotiations. And right now, that's not happening."

Later, in an interview, Manchin explained his presidential tongue-lashing.

"As the governor, I had to put budgets together," he said. "You have to basically sit down with the parameters and put your priorities in what we believe. And that's all I'm asking."

But Manchin's swipe at the president rankled fellow Democrats. When asked about it, West Virginia's other Democratic senator, Jay Rockefeller, would only say, "It's a nice day." And Majority Leader Harry Reid defended the president.

"The president's engaged in this," Reid said. "He's got a few other problems I've indicated, with what's going on in the Middle East and many other things, so no, the president's been very easy to deal with, as usual."

For other Democrats, Manchin's apostasy was hardly surprising.

"He understands his state, and he understands its conservative bent," said Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat. Manchin's outburst? No big deal, Durbin said.

"Senators take on presidents all the time, and I understand Joe is new here," he said. "But he sure is not new to politics, nor new to West Virginia and their feelings."

Manchin does have good reason to distance himself from President Obama he's up for re-election next year in a state where Obama lost to John McCain. Last fall, Manchin's Republican opponent, John Raese, ran ads that had Manchin voicing support for the president's health care law.

"Sorry Joe," the ad said, "our seniors can't afford for you to be a rubber stamp for Barack Obama."

Nor can Manchin. His speech attacking the president seems to have been a hit with constituents.

"The replies I heard from our viewers and listeners in our area was that it was refreshing, that it was different," said Mark Kraham, news director at NBC affiliate WHAG, which is watched in six West Virginia counties. "And it was something that they hoped to see more out of Washington."

Like senators sitting together for bipartisan lunches, something Manchin recently inaugurated. One lunch mate is Illinois Republican freshman Sen. Mark Kirk.

"Joe Manchin and I have decided to break loose and have meetings as Republicans and Democrats, really, Americans," Kirk said. "And I cannot tell you how much I'm beginning to admire him and his independent streak."

Manchin is also forging ties with other GOP senators already, he's met with 20 of them. Why?

"That's just how I do, I don't know any other way," Manchin said, laughing. "I guess I go back to my comfort ... when you work with everyone, and everyone is involved in the mix, you get a better product."

And is Manchin going to vote for President Obama in the next election?

'Well, you know, that's a, that's not a very fair question on that, because basically everybody wants, should want their president to succeed," he said. "I want my president to succeed, whoever it may be."

If that doesn't sound quite like a yes or a no, maybe it's because while Manchin may be a Democrat, he's doing his best not to be tagged as an Obama Democrat. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.